About Project TIPLINE

Project TIPLINE was developed by Dr. Cynthia Lum at George Mason University in 2005 – 2008, in collaboration with the Departments of Justice (NIJ) and Defense (SPAWAR), to provide law enforcement with free tools to develop tip line systems for building their capacity to respond to critical incidents as well as investigative and community-based problem solving projects using large amounts of tips. Inspired by lessons learned from the Washington DC tri-state area sniper incident, Project TIPLINE is an automated tip collection, management, and analytic tool which is adaptable, operationally relevant, practitioner friendly, and technologically efficient. Included with the free software is also an operational handbook designed in consultation with police partners to guide agencies through the process of setting up the automated TIPLINE system and also in developing standard operating procedures, strategies, and tactics for preparing and responding to critical events using large amounts of tips gathered from the public.

PHASE I: Executive Summary and Research Report on the State of Tip Lines in Police Agencies and the TIPLINE Idea

Law enforcement agencies and victim services organizations have increasingly become interested in using tip line systems for responding to a wide array of critical events, investigations, and community-based problem solving projects. In theory, these systems should provide law enforcement agencies with the ability to quickly obtain large amounts of information from the public using automated, efficient systems to aid in investigations to resolve critical incidents and other public safety concerns. Examples of situations which have sparked interest in using tip lines have included:

  • High-profile, critical events such as the Washington D.C. Sniper incident
  • Missing persons cases
  • Community-based drug market reduction efforts
  • Wide-spread gun carrying or gun crime
  • Terrorism prevention and response
  • Natural disasters, recovery, and systems to report missing loved ones
  • Citizen complaint and accountability management systems for policing
  • Cold case investigations

While these situations vary widely, they share a number of commonalities which could benefit from the use of tip lines. First, each of these concerns is a serious problem that many municipal, state, and federal law enforcement agencies face and which generate a high public demand for a quick resolution. Second, although traditional law enforcement techniques may be used to respond to these concerns, the ability to effectively and quickly resolve or manage them often relies on information that can be more efficiently provided by the general public. Additionally, the amount of information solicited and received for these incidents can also be potentially voluminous, especially in critical events that generate high levels of public concern. Finally, any of these incidents could affect multiple law enforcement jurisdictions which may necessitate inter-jurisdictional collection, use, and dissemination of analysis and information. All of these commonalities make tip line systems relevant and timely.

Project TIPLINE was developed from lessons learned by law enforcement agencies in the 2002 Washington, D.C. area snipers incident. In that case, the public, in response to solicitations by both local law enforcement officials and the FBI, provided over 100,000 tips (the exact number may have been much more) to aid in that investigation. The sheer volume of tips, combined with the lack of an automated tip line system, proved a major challenge for law enforcement during that investigation and resulted in an inefficient use of the many tips that were generated. From in-depth discussions and collaboration with commanders of the Montgomery County Police Department (the lead municipal agency in Maryland) and other involved officials, the project team initiated Project TIPLINE.

Our preliminary research indicated that the needs of law enforcement agencies regarding tip lines are not being adequately met. In our initial report to the National Institute of Justice in the first phase of this project, we discovered that not only were tip line systems underused or absent in most police agencies in the United States, but if used, were often manual and inefficient systems which lacked analytic and automated components. The most common type of tip line employed is a landline telephone system, in which officers receive tips over the telephone, hand-write them onto pieces of paper, and in a few cases, enter tips into a computerized spreadsheet. Informal prioritizing or triage systems may be employed to decide which tips to investigate, and police agencies might not respond to every tip. We also discovered some ad hoc development of tip line applications and software (for example, Rapid Start, used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation) that are primarily used as case/tip management systems or to conduct simple keyword searches of logged tips. Some case management applications were developed by private companies who would charge agencies to use or purchase software.

Project TIPLINE was developed in 2004 to explore more automated ways for tips to be collected and analyzed.

Project Team

  • Principal Investigator: Dr. Cynthia Lum
  • Project Manager: Ms. Brooke Trahan
  • Software Developer: Mr. Daron White
  • Research Assistants: Abhishek Saurav, Jenny Weisbrod & Jonathan Bandy
  • SPAWAR Project Manager: Mr. Joey Pomperada